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He inherited his passion for freedom from his French ancestors

François Gondrand

Tags: History, Freedom, books
François Gondrand
François Gondrand
François Gondrand is a media consultant and author of a biography of St Josemaria Escriva, At God’s Pace (London and New York: Scepter, 1989; first published in French in 1982).

Interviewer: Your biography of St Josemaria recounts the successive stages in the life of the founder of Opus Dei, and relates each of them to his message, so that you locate it in its true historical and theological context. What was it that motivated you to write?

Gondrand: In the evening of June 26, 1975, while I was traveling to a city in Brittany, I heard that Josemaria Escriva had died. Two things occurred to me then and there. First: he must be in Heaven. Second: how suddenly he left us! Later, when I read a letter that Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo sent to all the members of Opus Dei relating how the Father had died, I realized that people would soon start writing biographies of him. I thought it would be nice if the first book to appear was written by a Frenchman.

The founder of Opus Dei, who had a great big heart, felt very special love for France. He told me he was a quarter French because he had a French grandfather. Then he said he’d probably inherited his passion for freedom from his French ancestors. I knew that Paris was one of the two cities he had wanted Opus Dei to spread to, back in 1935 or 1936, before the Spanish Civil War and then the Second World War put that on hold. So, as “love is repaid with love” as Msgr. Josemaria used to say, quoting St Theresa of Lisieux, I reckoned that one way of repaying his love, and the affection he’d shown me in Paris and in Rome, could be to write his life as soon as I could in French, a language that he spoke until the age of twelve, he once told me.

First french biography
First french biography
I wrote to Don Alvaro, who was then Secretary General of Opus Dei, suggesting the idea of a book in French. “If there’s no-one else,” I said, “I’ll write it myself.” He answered yes by return of post.
I began right away. As for the title, it was inspired by the thoughts I experienced when I heard that he’d died, which took shape in a phrase Msgr. Josemaria often used to encourage his spiritual children, telling us that we had to go “at God’s pace”.

Int.: What sources did you use?

Gondrand: First I went to Madrid, to copy documents that had been collected for the opening of the beatification and canonization process. I talked to several experts. I saw streets and houses and monuments that Josemaria Escriva had seen, and that were significant in his life and in the founding of Opus Dei. From the capital I traveled to Barbastro, Logroño and Saragossa, trying to absorb the atmosphere of the streets and scenes where he’d lived as a child. For me that was indispensable. It was like looking at the plans before shooting a film. Then I set to work on those 352 pages.

Int.: Would you see a connection between the historical and political situation of Spain in the 1930s through 1950s, and the development of Opus Dei?

Gondrand: Yes and no. The founding of Opus Dei was not like a meteorite falling to earth. It was unquestionably the fruit of an inspiration from God in a prayerful soul, who had been prepared for it by voluntary purification and unsought purifications too – the sufferings of his family. St Josemaria had been seeking how to respond to a long-felt call, a call that was urgent but at the same time had remained imprecise up until that October 2, 1928. It’s also the case that the seed fell into a very specific plot of ground: the character and education of that 26-year-old priest, living at a specific era, the end of the 1920s in Spain. But it wouldn’t be true to say that Fr Josemaria was aiming to find a remedy for the moral and political crisis of the times. That was evident when I studied his life and writings. He wrote, in documents that could be said to be foundational ones, that the Work of God – Opus Dei – had not been invented by someone to solve the problems of a particular country at a particular time; it had been willed by God, inspired in “a clumsy, deaf instrument” – meaning himself – to remind people to the end of time that everyone was called to holiness… And from that comes all the rest, including the formation and specific apostolate of Opus Dei.

Int.: What contribution do you think the founder of Opus Dei made to the life of the Church?

François Gondrand and Fr. Léonardon with San Josemaría in 1960, in Paris
François Gondrand and Fr. Léonardon with San Josemaría in 1960, in Paris
Gondrand: A positive, fruitful and dynamic message for the whole body of the Church, whether you belong to Opus Dei or not. A journalist said to me that from the moment of the canonization, St Josemaria no longer belongs to us: he belongs to the whole of the Church. And he was right! I think that Paul VI said something like that to Don Alvaro del Portillo when he received him for the first time after his election as president general of Opus Dei, i.e. as St Josemaria’s successor. The message of the universal call to holiness and apostolate were part of the teaching of Vatican II. It can also be considered as a response to Pope John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization”.

Int.: You knew the founder of Opus Dei personally. What can you say about his character? What was there that might make someone think, “I’ve met a saint”?

Gondrand: He was an effusive man, overflowing with charity, cheerfulness and concern for others. I also saw how much he suffered some months later, again in Paris, when he got a telephone call to say that three of his sons had been killed in a car crash on their way back to Andalucia from an encounter with him in Pamplona. We shared his pain, and he taught us with his example how to “manage” the suffering, accepting God’s Will progressively, little by little, even when you can’t understand it. “Omnia in bonum - all things work together for the good,” (Rom 8:28) he would say. “So apply it!” he told me. I think of it as a very special grace that I shared that time of suffering with him. Years later in Rome I saw him suffer several times, and again, it was a great lesson for me and for all of us.
But even without having lived through those moments I think the fruitfulness of the founder’s life, based on prayer and sacrifice, the depth and sincerity of his writings, would be enough to say he was a saint.

Int.: You lived through the beginnings of Opus Dei in France. What was it like? Did people understand the message of holiness in the middle of the world, in everyday life?

Gondrand: I wasn’t there right at the start. I know that the first people of Opus Dei who arrived in Paris experienced some very difficult times, times that were also full of hope. They worked very hard for the first vocations to arise. They had to learn French, some of them were studying for degrees, all of them had to earn their living. Some of them are still living in France and they sometimes talk about those times.
Early in the 30´s st Josemaria had planned a student residence close to the Sena river
Early in the 30´s st Josemaria had planned a student residence close to the Sena river

Int.: Were there any difficulties? Can you tell us about any of them?

Gondrand: The message of Opus Dei filled people with enthusiasm. Probably some people didn’t like the fact that the founder was not French but Spanish, in spite of its long tradition of spirituality. That gave rise to unfriendly comment in the press, since the political regime in Spain in those days seemed like an anachronism in the context of Western Europe. But I don’t think all that made much difference to the people who actually knew the first members of Opus Dei, because what they could see above all was the way they were living out their faith and their apostolic ideal, naturally and cheerfully – something they inherited from the founder. That attracted us more than a hundred learned speeches. But of course, one had to take the plunge, and that was something else…

Int.: After so many years, can you say what influence St Josemaria’s message has had in France?

Gondrand: I think it was after his beatification and canonization that, thanks to articles in the press, many people realized that this new way of acting in the world as a faithful Catholic could renew the apostolate of the laity along the lines proclaimed by Vatican II. Pope John Paul II’s powerful call to evangelization undoubtedly helped this process of understanding.

Int.: How would you summarize the role of the laity in the Church and in society?

Gondrand: Being sap, being leaven, and not imposing the faith from above but working within society at every level, that’s the current message of the Pope and the Bishops. That was also the message of the founder of Opus Dei, who, in any case, did no more than revive the spirit of the Gospel, which the early Christians practiced so intensely.

St. Josemaria´s visits to France